I'm convinced that Tom Yam should be one of the first, if not the first, recipes you begin with when learning to cook Thai. In addition to being ridiculously easy to make, it's a dish that captures the essence of Thai flavors.
Then again, it's also just as easy to destroy. Don't even think about using lemon rinds, lemon juice, or soy sauce as substitutes for lemongrass, lime juice, and fish sauce. Using dried herbs instead of fresh will also instantly turn a lovely pot of Tom Yam into a cauldron of herbal medicine.
In Thailand, while dishes like Pad Thai—that require so many ingredients your head starts spinning—are almost always left to the street food cooks, Tom Yam is rooted firmly in the home kitchen. This is what a mother makes with a plate of Thai omelet for dinner when the fridge is nearly bare. This is what a grandmother whips up during monsoon season for her grandchildren who want a soothing, familiar meal. It's what a father who only cooks once a decade, can make blindfolded.
Like Making Tea
Making Tom Yam is kind of like making tea. To make tea, you infuse warm water with tea leaves; to make Tom Yam, you infuse warm broth with fresh herbs.
Unlike red or green curry, where you can't figure out all the ingredients just by looking at the finished dish, Tom Yam fully declares its main herbal components in its bowl. You're looking at galangal, lemongrass, and makrut lime leaves. They're not meant to be eaten—well, except for maybe a few paper-thin slices of young galangal—but they're not removed like you would a used bouquet garni or sachet of spices in Western dishes.
Two Ways to Make Tom Yam Soup
In general, there are two ways of making Tom Yam: one that's best for cuts of meat that take longer to cook (like bone-in chunks of chicken, oxtails, tough cuts of beef) and one for quick-cooking meats (e.g. bite-size chicken breast pieces, shrimp, seafood).
For meats that need more time, start with plain water and some fish sauce to season the meat as it it stews. Once the meat is tender, add the aromatics, then the seasonings go in last. A garnish of cilantro (or culantro) is the last touch.
For quicker-cooking meats, which are more commonly used for Tom Yam, you need a different approach. Since there's not much to work with in the collagen and umami department, start out by making your own broth. Simmer the chicken or pork bones in plain water until you extract every bit of flavor out of them, then strain the bones. Infuse the broth with the herbs, season it and cook the meat in this barely-simmering broth just until cooked through.
There are many variations of Tom Yam. I like mine plain with nothing but meat in herb-infused broth that's been seasoned very simply with fish sauce and lime juice and spiced with a few crushed fresh bird's eye chilies. This is different from the heavier, more complex restaurant variation loaded with ingredients such as Nam Prik Pao, which is what most people know and like.
Then we have a more recent variation that contains—gasp—milk (which brings us back to the tea comparison). It seemed weird at first but it has slowly grown on me. Or maybe I'm just succumbing to the pressure seeing how Bangkok can't get enough of it.
This recipe was originally published as part of Leela Punyaratabandhu's column "My Thai."
2 cups (475ml) homemade or store-bought chicken stock (see note)
6 ounces (170g) fresh button or oyster mushrooms (or 1 1/2 cups well-drained canned straw mushrooms), cut into bite-size pieces
6 to 7 fresh makrut lime leaves (3g), torn into pieces and lightly bruised (see note)
7 to 8 slices lemongrass (8g), approximately 1/8-inch thick (see note)
7 to 8 very thin slices (15g) of peeled fresh galangal (see note)
2 tablespoons (30g) homemade or store-bought nam prik pao (Thai chile jam)
1/4 cup (60ml) fish sauce, plus more to taste
4 to 5 fresh red bird’s eye chiles (7g), crushed
1 pound (455g) head-on jumbo shrimp, peeled with the head and tail sections left intact
1 cup (235ml) evaporated milk, whole milk, or half and half
1/4 cup (60ml) fresh lime juice from 2 limes
1/4 cup (10g) lightly-packed cilantro leaves (or sawtooth coriander leaves, thinly sliced)
In a medium saucepan, bring broth to a very gentle boil over medium heat, then adjust heat to maintain a bare simmer. Add mushrooms and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in limes leaves, lemongrass, nam prik pao, fish sauce, and chiles.
Add shrimp and increase heat to bring soup to a steady simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp have firmed up slightly, about 1 minute. Add milk, return to a simmer, then remove from heat.
Stir in lime juice and season with additional fish sauce to taste. Stir in cilantro leaves and serve.
You can use pork broth in place of chicken stock.
Makrut lime leaves, galangal, and store-bought nam prik pao can be found at many Asian markets, but particularly those catering to a Southeast Asian community.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 17g||22%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||37%|
|Total Carbohydrate 50g||18%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||19%|
|Total Sugars 22g|
|Vitamin C 20mg||99%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|